Resident Evil 7 Review — Make (Urban) America Hate Again

by Jed Pressgrove

One of the most superficial claims about Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is that it brings the Resident Evil series “back to its roots.” What this game, written by westerner Richard Pearsey, actually does is reuse anti-rural American horror cliches while sporting a “new perspective,” as if making a first-person title is revolutionary. With this in mind, Resident Evil 7 is most accurately described as a nostalgic survival-horror reboot for city snobs.

Set in rural Louisiana (again, not Resident Evil’s roots), Resident Evil 7 puts you in control of Ethan Winters scouring the home of a “hick family” (to quote condescending critic Simon Parkin) for his missing wife Mia. The proceedings get grotesque quickly: within an hour or so, you will be invited to eat maggot-ridden food and then chased around the house by drawling patriarch Jack Baker, a villain who recalls Nemesis from Resident Evil 3. With his own life on the line, Ethan must fight back with a standard array of weapons (knife, pistol, shotgun, grenade launcher, etc.) that feel like a sentimental regression from the superior combat options of Resident Evil 4.

Although Pearsey eventually provides an extraordinary explanation as to why this rural place and family are so decrepit, his script borrows heavily from American films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, Wrong Turn, and others that suggest rural people are backward. Pearsey’s co-opted vision reveals its contempt for country folk with ridiculous dialogue (“Welcome to the family, son.” and “Rise and shine, sleepyhead. It’s time for supper.”) and references to outdated items like VCRs (which doubles as a treat for nostalgia-obsessed nerds). The implication is that rural people already talk and live funny in their isolation, and when you mix this existing idiocy with nasty science fiction, you have what many critics and fans have called a return to scariness.

Only problem is you’d have to be oblivious to or willfully ignorant of the movies that Resident Evil 7 copies to find this garbage shocking. Even if Pearsey isn’t as snooty and resentful as his script suggests, you would think he, one of the writers of the deconstructionist Spec Ops: The Line, would be more aware of how unoriginal and cheap this horror story is. When you approach a refrigerator to read notes like “Male 20s Portly BBQ,” you have to wonder how anyone living in the Information Age could overlook the vicious repetitiveness of this rural cannibalism idea, which was also excused when it appeared in the second episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. That critics like Parkin would compare this slasher-film crap to Truman Capote’s multidimensional brilliance shows you how delusional a city snob can be.

Curiously, this same type of audience, supposedly progressive, has glossed over the racism and misogyny of Resident Evil 7. The deputy David Andersen is a textbook example of a token black character who is only there to die. And not only does he die, but Ethan, upon finding David’s corpse in a dissection room, quips “Poor deputy.” In one stroke, developer Capcom gets in its minimal diversity quota, and in another stroke, the company implies the black guy doesn’t matter anyway. In another scene, you fight Jack’s wife Marguerite. Here, Pearsey confirms his unexamined urban bias with Marguerite’s line “There’s no escape, city boy.” This dialogue comes at about the time you discover Marguerite’s weak point: her exposed, corrupted vagina. It’s a shameful way of degrading an already-savage rural caricature.

Pearsey does offer Zoe, Jack and Marguerite’s daughter, as a counterexample to her family’s inherent backwardness. Still, Zoe seems like more of a plot device compared to how writer/director Eli Craig uses the character of Allison to show a genuine connection between rural and non-rural people in the sociological masterpiece Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. Craig’s film exposes Pearsey’s low standards for horror writing and raises legitimate points about how fear on both sides of the urban/rural divide results in destruction. Resident Evil 7 only offers longstanding stupidity to go along with its clunky action — a frightening combo for all the wrong reasons.

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10 comments

  1. it is hard to be scared, and certainly to have any fun, when you’re up to your eyes in a more intellectual disgust. So interesting to me that RE4 was a so-much-more sincere “return to roots” of camp & carnage, yet without the hammed-up fanfare that RE7 got for some misbegotten reason.

    did you feel it knocked off the success of P.T. to some degree?

    1. To some degree, I could see P.T. being an influence. Some of the hype behind P.T. seems to be “first-person perspective = scarier.”

      I also think Resident Evil 4 has more in common with the roots of the series than Resident Evil 7. People are just buying into Capcom’s marketing campaign, forgetting the military themes, the corny dialogue, the zombies …

      1. P.T., Amnesia & Soma, Outlast… I’d say they all had influence. Unsurprising to see big studios trying to copy the indie market and try to get some of that praise.

  2. Interesting take! I read a lot more Faulkner in RE7 than anything else – more of a takedown of southern legacy familial power structures. Jack as patriarch – dominant in his every word and action. He threatens Marguerite with physical violence; the implication is different from his treatment of Lucas, who he outright dismembers. I found it to be a clever juxtaposition of violence – Lucas exists to highlight the nature of the infection, but the raised hand toward Marguerite suggests something more systemic – separate from the regenerative properties of the infection. Additionally, his violence towards Ethan is predicated on the threat of patriarchal usurpation – he mumbles and moans about how he was “supposed to be [Eveline’s] father.” He’s fighting you to protect his role as patriarch.

    Marguerite is relegated – by nature of said familial structure – to a role of maternity and birthing. She spawns her insect “children,” and we kill her by literally destroying her womb and vagina (one of the grossest parts of a game that categorically hates its women).

    Lucas and Zoe are both the archetypal child figures in a southern narrative – struggling with rebelling against a system that they’ve internalized and hate at the same time. Lucas, despite being free of Eveline’s control, stays to assert the patriarchal dominance that he’s grown accustomed to by way of his death traps. Zoe simply wants out, and is abused both by her family and bad writing.

    Tbh, this only heightens how bad the last third of the game is. It seeks to provide an explanation for Eveline, as well as a connection to the plot of the series, but ends up existing mostly as wasted time. A damn shame.

    Also, I’d note the very intentional racial play going on in the game – it’s not an accident that the one black character ends up hung by the neck at one point, recalling the lynchings of old. Not only that, but Jack specifically says “you’re going to help me” – heavily implying a slave labour context. RE7 is most certainly asking the player to think and engage on a deeper level than mere “survival horror.”

    Ultimately, this all builds to how unsustainable this model is – how we can’t (and shouldn’t) perpetuate the roles of old. For a game that so shamelessly cribs from modern horror, it’s quite subtle and intentional about the way it repackages classic literature. Even if it’s not intentional (though I heavily suspect that it is), RE7 is up to some deeply Faulknerian critiques. I suppose it’s not surprising – the man defined southern narrative.

    Doesn’t change how fucking gross, shitty, and classist a lot of the critical reception has been though. Really bums me out. Fucking drives me nuts when critics point and laugh at a rural setting and go “ha! look at these dumb poor people!” and throw language like “hicks” around. ESPECIALLY when that’s not the takeaway a game is attempting to engender.

    Looking forward to more reviews!

    1. the RE games I remember are also about overthrowing the old establishment – that’s why you’re in creepy, sprawling manors, and top-secret laboratories, and ancient castles hosting fervent cultists – but (not having played it) RE7 seems to scale this down to the family-unit “establishment” which seems like a step backwards. Zombie horror is supposed to threaten your sense of self by suggesting *you’re* the one who’s wrong among a crowd of monsters, who’s different. But it sounds like RE7 is obsessed with the Baker family as the freaky outsiders, which distorts the theme into something one-dimensional.

  3. “this rural cannibalism idea, which was also excused when it appeared in the second episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead” This was an example that jumped into my mind, too, as I was reading through this. All I can say is that The Walking Dead walks a fine line where Resident Evil 7 stumbles about. There’s a wider social context in The Walking Dead, and a greater deal of sympathy for its subject matter. We see a South in ruins, destroyed by the zombie threat and given little hope for recovery. But that doesn’t negate the anti-rural motifs the game works with (at least in that moment). In fact, the sympathy is a little easier to read in the later episodes, when the characters reach Savannah.

    1. While I agree Resident Evil 7 is more offensive, I feel a good deal of The Walking Dead’s appeal is emotional shock and a general sense of morbidity. This approach makes sense from a financial standpoint; you can keep people clamoring for survival drama for a long time, as the comic book and show demonstrate. But what are we really learning about the South or society with the game? I’d say Telltale’s player-choice marketing holds the spotlight more.

  4. Yahtzee from ZP recognized that the game was kinda racist while recommending it. Do you think critics should be more critical of this type of stuff?

    1. I don’t think people should criticize things unless they actually care (pretension is never the answer), but personally I do think there are very legitimate reasons to criticize Resident Evil (5 and 7 in particular) for racism. Yahtzee made a really good point about 5: it seems to go out of its way to avoid accusations of racism with the inclusion of Sheva and white enemies, but then it goes down an incredibly racist path with the spear-wielding caricatures.

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